CAMBRIDGE — Ask Charlie Kohlhase a question about jazz history.
If you’re wondering about, say, an obscure studio session from the 1960s, there’s a good enough chance he’ll have a copy of it in his home collection, which numbers over 10,000 LPs and a few thousand more CDs.
And in a realm of music that was dividing itself into careful subgenres long before historians of EDM debated the merits of Chicago house music versus jump-up drum ’n’ bass, Kohlhase will eagerly connect the dots between the seemingly incompatible styles of a mainstream icon and a fringe innovator.
“Here’s somebody who understands that to define jazz by its stylistic limitations is artistically and creatively dangerous,” says guitarist Eric Hofbauer, who has played in Kohlhase-led bands since 2000. “He loves Louis Armstrong as much as he loves Albert Ayler, and he can connect them both in four records. And he’s going to find a way in his original pieces to honor and justify both of those languages in the world of jazz.”
Kohlhase—a saxophonist, songwriter, educator, and radio host who has led various free-jazz-minded ensembles in the area since 1980—achieved his stature as the Boston area’s walking encyclopedia of jazz simply by listening to, and playing, lots of music. A native of Portsmouth, N.H., he hung around the University of New Hampshire for eight years, but not in the classrooms — he started DJing on college radio while still a sophomore in high school.
It was the record library of WUNH that offered his first deep exposure to the music, spurred on by a few slightly older friends who talked up the merits of progressive players like John Coltrane and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. He quickly traded his pop-oriented show for two overnight on-air shifts, digging through the crates for the benefit of his listeners as many as 12 hours a week.
“I got to listen to a lot of stuff,” Kohlhase, who turns 57 this month, says with typical humility on the phone from his home in Chelsea. The free-thinking musician, who later became an institution on MIT’s WMBR-FM (88.1) — where he’s hosted the weekly show “Research and Development” since 1996 — has made it his business to promote “forward looking jazz,” as he calls it.
His long-running quintet, and succeeding ensembles CK5 and Charlie Kohlhase’s Explorer’s Club, have been forums for his creative compositions married with conscientiously orchestrated, but out-there, improvisation.
At the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, he runs the student ensemble of the Modern American Music program, where he can call on his many friends and collaborators in Boston’s free-blowing scene for fresh arrangements or compositions.
“I grew up at a time when people were really interested in free jazz. That was really part of the music to me. And I think you miss that today. I think the influence of Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has kind of taken that music out of people's general perception of what jazz is,” he says. “To me, jazz is all of that. All the stuff — all the swing, bop, as well as free jazz — and we’re just trying to mold that into something that is a 21st-century music now.”
Though his formal education didn’t extend beyond high school, the self-made musician complemented his copious listening habits with private instruction from saxophonist Stan Strickland and trombonist Roswell Rudd, plus the less-formal tutelage of the late John Tchicai, a friend and sometime-collaborator who’d played sax with the likes of Ayler and Coltrane.
Russ Gershon, leader of the Either/Orchestra, which Kohlhase has played with as a sideman for many years, says his friend’s catholic listening interests inform his playing but don’t cramp his creativity. “I know who his influences are and I hear them in his playing, but it’s just always Charlie. He’s an open-minded, tolerant, very funny guy.”
With his Explorer’s Club, which Kohlhase says he named with an eye toward something “with a Boy Scout-ish image but also the potential for some subversion,” he presents free-roaming compositions meant to highlight the musical ideas of his collaborators. (Depending on availability, the group may grow from three to nine players. A trio version, with drummer Curt Newton and bassist Matt Stavrakas, plays Outpost 186 on Thursday.)
A section with relatively straight-ahead chord changes may give way to a more open modal improvisation, or a backbeat-driven vamp. Players may even be assigned “roles” as the comic book-inspired characters Kohlhase wryly created as thematic jumping-off points.
“The way I program the music with my band is kind of like a radio program. I try and get a variety of different sounds and textures into each set. And I think that kind of thing informs the writing and arranging as well,” he explains.The unifying spirit among Kohlhase’s projects seems to be his general affability and openness to others’ musical suggestions.
“We always have a million ideas and we’re not afraid to say them, which is great. Some bands I’m in, I keep my mouth shut. But it’s very comfortable in his band,” Hofbauer says. At rehearsals, he adds, there’s plenty of laughter and personal catch-up time. “That’s a clever way to run a band — to keep it fun like it’s a hang, but to get creative work done where everyone's contributing.”
But beneath Kohlhase’s unassuming nature is a busy mind.
Gershon says he’s borrowed some things from Kohlhase’s vast music library, but can name at least one item he hasn’t returned. Surely his friend won’t miss it, right?
“I’m 100 percent sure he remembers what it was,” Gershon says.